Gossiping About Quilting Cotton

First, an explanation.  I have a bit of blogging block.  I’m working on some Cake releases for the beginning of next year- three ensembles.  I can’t write much more about it right now, even though I’m dying to!  I’m also finishing up the shipping/distribution work for the Tiramisu Pattern, it’s a little tricky as the printer is in Kansas and I’m in Brisbane, Australia.  It should work out just fine, but it must be organized so I can ship the patterns to y’all as soon as they come off the press (or shortly thereafter!).  Then there’s also the Cake site that requires my attention, and the electronic pattern files to prepare.  And my pattern-alteration email clients are a top priority in my everyday.  It’s all quite manageable, but it takes time.  So does blogging.

When I don’t write for several days on end, it’s because I’m putting in time working on something I think you’ll dig more than this old blog.  :)  Really, I wish I could just show you everything I’m working on for Cake releases right now.  I’m not sure how to navigate the balance between blogging and other work, I enjoy writing but it takes a great deal of time.  This used to be something of a record for me of my sewing, but that doesn’t feel quite right any more.  I hope you don’t mind while I take time for Cake and also experiment with different kinds of posts….

With the Wholesome Dress, made of a thrifted duvet cover. Best. Fluffy 50’s Dress. Ever. I wore this all the time until she died…

Right, well, now to the gossip… The topic of using quilting cotton for apparel comes up in sewy circles constantly.   I’ve had a few questions about the exact definition of “quilting cotton” so I thought I’d offer my own explanation via fabric store gossip.

When you work in a quilting shop, you pick up a certain amount of “gossip” from visiting fabric merchants and wholesalers about fabric types, what’s popular and selling well, as well as various information about the fabric itself.  Once I asked our fabric rep at work why we had a bolt of quilting cotton on the shelf for $20/m when I could cross the parking lot to Spotlight (like Joann’s) and buy the same print for half the price or less.

He’s spent his career handling these printed woven fabrics and explained to me that when printing a “run” of fabric, the inks and the print alignment must be checked.  They use low-quality pigment and cheaper grade cotton fabric to test the print run.  When they’re happy with the alignment and colors, they switch in the good quality fabrics and inks.

This is the difference between cheap quilting cotton and “the good stuff.”

Another quality of quilting cotton is its density, and the tightness of the threads used to weave the fabric.  Higher quality cotton especially has very tightly wound threads of long, quality fibers.  The shorter fibers are used for cheaper fabrics, which often causes worn spots in the fabric or pilling.  These fine, tightly wound treads are woven very closely.

Closely woven fabric withstands the kind of wear and tear that bedding endures.  This is why more expensive sheet sets have higher thread counts- more threads per inch means a smoother surface texture and less abrasion against the body.  This makes it both comfortable for sleeping and longer lasting.

These tight, close fabrics generally don’t have much “give”- they refuse to ease, or only after much persuasion from a hot and steamy iron.

During Frosting Fortnight, I’ve been rummaging through my vast store of “frosting”- fancy stuff, impractical design experiments, as well as garments I just don’t wear for whatever reason.  I had several shirts in that last category made of quilting cotton.  I’ve been looking at them and wearing them around during FF to help me decide which to keep and which to use for scraps.

Tilly wrote an excellent post recently about rules for using quilting cotton well.  She’s brilliant, Tilly:

Bright, lightweight, stiff quilting cotton works well for Lila’s summer clothes- avoid cutting prints too many times to avoid the “quilty” look…

1. Determine how much drape or stiffness your project needs

I like this shirt only in this picture. In reality, the sleeve openings have no flexibility so I feel a little like a robot even though the sleeves aren’t tight. Quilting cotton, now stripped of buttons and thrust into my quilting box…

2. Avoid projects with sleeves

This red top ended up hidden away because I liked the fabric too much to wear it! How silly. It’s also technically a quilting cotton with a fine, tough, dense weave. It was batiked in indonesia, and has a watercolor quality to the print.  She goes back into regular rotation!

3. Be realistic about what prints you are likely to wear

4. Consider adding a lining.

Agreed.  I don’t have any skirts of quilting cotton, but in the past I felt I had to line my quilting cotton skirts.  It gives the fabric better drape and doesn’t tend to wrinkle and bunch as much.

Another successful quilting-cotton-top rescue! I love the print and cut the neckline in harmony with the fabric design. It’s a bit boxy, but that’s perfect for hot weather. I usually pair this with a circle skirt, but here it’s paired with a failed jeans shorts experiment. I hate the stitching and the way the fabric warped, though I love the pockets. The shorts are on the chopping block, the top gets a reprieve.

5. Experiment and embrace!-
In my own experience, I find quilting-cotton-for-apparel works best with simple pattern shapes, minimum seaming and design details.  The tops I saved are quite comfy for summer wear, even if they don’t flatter my figure (what is “flattering”, anyway?)

Next up I’ll show you two deep dark wardrobe secrets (my favorite skirt of all time is made of polyester and it will have to be pried from my cold dead fingers!), and I’m working on a sewists’ pictorial guide to recycling dead or wrong clothes.


39 comments

  1. The so-called “designer” quilting cottons also have a better hand and drape. I’ve never had problems making garments from them, though I will admit that the ironing isn’t my favorite thing about them!

  2. I love this post, it makes me feel better about liking the more expensive quilting cottons. I also agree about shirts done in these fabrics, they are great the first time you wear them but become annoying after that. I do like all of the skirts I’ve made with the higher quality cottons, they’re much easier to iron than all the fiddly bits on shirts.

    • Yeah, the more expensive ones will be nicer… Almost without exception. There’s a reason they charge more…

      I like wearing wovens, but don’t like bothering to iron… Is that cognitive dissonance? ;)

  3. Great discussion—I love this balanced approach! Also love that red keyhole blouse… It makes me want to remake mine with a keyhole that’s not so damn demure!

  4. I’ve always been sniffy about whether better quality fabric was worth the money, until I sewed with Liberty fabric and now I’m absolutely converted. Great post.
    And I know it’s been said before, but really, we know you’re busy making marvellous stuff for us and will be here waiting. Don’t forget to take some time for you and your lovely family. Balance is most certainly the key.x

    • Really? Yes… I would say pretty much across the board that with fabric as with so many things, you get what you pay for… And oooooh Liberty is divine… There’s a reason Liberty cotton has a kind of world sewist cult status… ;)

      Yes… We do take time, it’s a priority… They’ve been away for a long weekend with his parents, I’ve been here at home working on stuff… Always the balance… I feel like the only thing kind of going a bit by the wayside is the blog, even though there’s very little I can do about it… I miss you ! That’s it… I miss you… I don’t have a lot of time to read blogs either these days..

      • It’s bizarre that it never connected for me because I detest knitting with cheap yarn!
        Glad to hear that you’re taking time. Something has to give whilst you get Cake up and running…you’ve got it right.

  5. I have made cute things with quilting cotton… and I’ve also sworn it off pretty much entirely, unless for some reason I come back and revisit those items.

    I made two versions of the infamous ’52 wrapdress from Butterick as pretty much my first “real” sewing projects after I got a machine that didn’t bite. My first darts! I didn’t know jack about fabric at that point, so I got some really stiff cotton at the discount fabric shop. A few washes later, the starch was out and it ended up being the high-quality quilting cotton that you mention. The second dress … I bought the very adorable fabric from Joanne’s… and the print was painted on and totally off-grain. Guess which dress started ripping first? :p

    I would, at this point, use quilting cotton for the following garments: Things for my daughter – sometimes. Very heirloomy things for me. Very kitchy dresses – like, I might make that wrap dress up again some time. And I’d be inclined to use calico more than regular quilting fabric, it tends to be softer.

    PS – You need to make another wholesome dress. It was *so* beautiful, and brought out your sweetness. Please? :)

    • OMG do you mean the Butterick walkaway dress? What IS it with that dress? It’s become a rite of passage for sewists, hasn’t it? I made one of *yep* quilting cotton, re-engineered the closures and decided it was a very cute house dress… The skirt! It’s just all over the map… I wear it around the house but that’s it…

      Great tips for usability… :)

      Awww you’re so lovely and sweet! I miss that dress, too… I wore it to a refugee protest on a hot day (always a good idea to dress nicely for those…) and drenched her in sweat… I’ll keep an eye out for a similar fabric. Stephen liked it, too… Hence the name, he said it makes me look wholesome… ;)

      • The walkaway dress! Yes. :) It’s so darn cute, and says that it’s easy … and it is, if you aren’t aware of the fitting pitfalls waiting for you. I realised last night at church that I was wearing a quilting cotton skirt. I don’t think it screams homemade somehow thought, and it goes (mysteriously) with half my wardrobe.

        LOL on the walkaway. I was remembering the skirt and thinking that perhaps I could find another adorable full skirted dress to make.

        • I really, really, really don’t know why Butterick had to shut down printing other patterns for six months for that dress… Was it the marketing? What was it that made walkaway so popular when it’s kind of a meh dress? No idea, maybe it was the lure of a cool and interesting little house dress… Also.. .How did 50’s housewives manage to attach bias binding so quickly? The idea was you could start the dress after breakfast and then walkaway to lunch… So how did they bind so quickly? If I had to set it on the way they did, just the binding alone would take me the whole morning..

          • They used a binding attachment foot? The bindings were folded with more of a “lip” for the underside, so you didn’t have to keep unpicking and restitching the dadblasted binding? They put on all bindings with a one-step sewing, instead of sew/trim/fold/handstitch? Idk.

  6. Stop worrying about the blogging! We all know you are setting up a new business and have loads to do! Plus the whole coordination thing for the patterns must be a nightmare – do you mean Kansas in the States? whew…. I for one am very happy that you are working on three new patterns for Cake heh heh heh. Just say hi every now and again so we know you are alright and stop the angst.

    I have a few summer dresses I made with quilting cotton. I don’t know if they count as designer cottons – they are all Amy Butler, Martha Negley, Anna Maria Horner… sleeveless dresses as it’s hot here and it’s not that thin as cotton goes. Mostly with fitted bodices and fullish skirts – not too many gathers, I usually cut my full skirts from one particular pattern which is shaped like a triangle – I cannot imagine dirndl skirts in any quilting cotton!!! They did really well last summer and this summer and still look good. Oh, and I made a very cute Crepe (Colette wrap dress) with irregular polka dot from Amy Butler. There’s only one dress I made that I’m really not happy with – the cotton seemed the same quality as the others, it’s gorgeous print from Laura Gunn, and it is so creased. Just won’t come right. And I always thought that it wouldn’t work for clouses, too stiff for anything but a fitted shaoped top with no sleeves – I have a couple cute 50s tops it might work for, but I made the mistake of making a Sorbetto with this amazing ard I got of AMH which is turquoise with enormous white flowers – like, the whole front of the top is one flower… Mortified when i saw that it just didn’t look good tucked into a skirt… and i never wear tops out unless they are tucked at the waist….

    I haven’t bought quilting cotton for ages now – not since I discovered sewbox.co.uk who sells gorgeous liberty tana and poplin – wow, practically don’t need ironing – and since my favourite designers are doing voile and even viscose – Horner and Butler. I love their prints and colourways….

    • I don’t worry exactly… I just miss everyone and don’t want you to go away. But you’re right, I wrote an angsty few paragraphs there and it’s just silly. Won’t happen again…

      Yes… Usually if a cotton has a proper designer, then it’s a quality fabric…. :)

      Thanks for the tips for what’s worked for you! :)

      MMmmm yummy Tana and poplin…. I agree, gorgeous fabrics and easier to work with..

      I like Amy Butler, I do, but even when I see her designs on voile or rayon I think there’s still something off about it… Maybe I don’t like Amy as much as I should, or maybe she uses print proportions better suited to purses and home dec than clothes? No idea…

  7. Agreed, we know where you are and what you’re up to, so no pressure, OK :) I SO agree about flattering = ??? My all time ever favourite garment is a printed voile smock with OTT neck frill, often seen in photos of me, as I live in it. By itself in summer, with merino under it in winter. It is about to die, I can tell, and I have its replacement fabric all lined up – qc from an 18th C inspired range that I fell for BIG TIME. Now this garment does nothing to imply that there is less of me than there is, in fact when I am not wearing it, people ask me if I have lost weight! So, not flattering in that sense. But it is very ME, and so I feel it flatters my me-ness, I think that is far more important, as well as being comfortable :)

    • Yes… Does it count as flattering if it’s a good color but a “bad” cut? How do I factor in the way it feels?

      Excellent…. :) You’re an inspiration, Mrs C…

  8. Sounds busy! But you contribute a lot to the sewing blogger community so don’t worry, we can bear with you. :)
    Also, I have had good results making sleeves from a craft cotton, Michael Miller eiffel tower print, so I think sleeves can work.

    • Hey thanks, Kestrel… It’s really easy to get caught up in working and start to feel disconnected… And I don’t want to do that!

      I made a dress with sleeve for Lila from that print.. They were cut-on… Hmm… :) It’s a fun print, isn’t it?

  9. One of the first fabrics I bought when I started sewing was an Amy Butler quilting cotton. It’s a pale green – almost the same colour as your website background but with a touch more yellow. It has medium sized off white flowers for the print.
    Due to the shipping debacle that happened around the time you guys had the big floods, my fabric didn’t arrive for four months.
    In that time, I’d learned enough about sewing to know that the pattern I’d originally planned for that fabric was woefully inappropriate. I’m so glad it took that long for it to arrive as it would have been one of my first costly mistakes.
    But now those four yards have been sitting in my stash for a couple of years and I still haven’t got round to making anything from it.
    Your post has confirmed my suspicions that it’d be best suited to a fairly basic full skirted 50’s dress. No gathering and not a circle skirt as it doesn’t seem like a circle skirt would work well out of stiff heavy cotton and I imagine all the sections on the bias would make it drape very oddly. That leaves pleats. Not too many cos who likes ironing all those? But it would be nice to use the stiffness of the cotton to make a skirt that stands out on it’s own quite well. And cotton is so nice in summer.

    • I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss a circle skirt… They have a nice drape in general, ripples everywhere and nice and smooth… :)

  10. I’m mostly a knit girl as I’ve not had too much success with quite a lot of wovens. I’m very interested in ideas for reworking gone wrong projects or things i don’t wear anymore although my work, style and climate are a LOT different to yours.

    • Ok good! I think you might dig the other post I’m working on… We do have differences, but I think the idea is more or less the same.. ;)

  11. As always Steph a timely and interesting post. A friend and I were recently discussing this topic. When you walk into a quilt store and see all the glorious fabrics, you just can’t help but see a skirt or top or two. Because I am a quilter, however, I have never made a garment with quilting cotton. I have made aprons but that is all. I was tempted to experiment recently but the fabric had no drape, no flexibility and just was not suitable. I think that cheaper fabrics for a one season piece it may be just fine, with a lining. In any case, thanks for the information and don’t work too hard. Your talents are most appreciated.

    • Yeah I remember that… Seeing clothes in quilting shops in my imagination… It’s so hard when the prints are just so darn gorgeous. :)

      Aw thanks… :) You’re so sweet!

  12. quilting cottons are all i have easy access to, so i’ve had to learn to work with them and embrace their inherent stiffness. as you say, you just have to be choosey about what you use them for. i do gravitate to the higher quality prints/cottons, but even they still have their issues. sigh!

    • Fabrics.com has a gigantic range of fabric, an amazing swatching service, and their shipping is quite reasonable and quick, even to Australia. :) They’re just one of many.

  13. I really like tops and summer dresses from quilting cotton. The fabric works well for me in the subtropics (oh, I can’t wait to get home) and there is a nice, old-fashioned feel to a garment made from a quilting cotton that appeals to me. I’ve also made numerous mens’ shirts in quilting cottons and they hold up really well. It’s great fabric for day to day garments.

    • Yep. “Quilting” cottons make lovely blouses and summer dresses. They are the sorts of fabrics that all our clothing was made of, in the 1960s, where I live.( I guess that the stiffness to which dear Miz Steph objects just feels normal to me.) The firmer weaves don’t wrinkle so badly as softer fabrics. I rarely press them, just spritz with water and watch any wrinkles fall away on their own. Good alternatives for hot weather are gauze, which is out of fashion and thus largely unavailable now; kettle cloth (ditto); or linen, which you either love or hate for its inherent wrinkling.

      • Dear Miz Steph counts herself lucky she lives in a time where she has decent fabrics to wear/sew with. I wouldn’t live through the 60’s for love or money.

        I’ve seen plenty of gauze around… Linen gauze, I’m just trying to decide what to make from it.

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  15. There is nothing quite like a morning of ‘fabric fondling’ at the local fabric store and for some reason I find the experience in a quilting store less than satisfactory. Its a visual sensory experience with all that colour – but not a tactile one for me. I think it might have something to do with the way the fabrics are bolted – wheres in a regular dress fabric store with fabric on the rolls you can pull it out, unroll the fabric hold it up at length!

    Quilters cottons generally remain stashed with my hats and handbags patterns although I do have a piece that fell in love with and had to have. Now I have to find a garment style that it will work with.

    As for price being a indicator of quality – I’ve got some fabulous 150cm wide 100% cotton lawn that I got locally for the grand price of $9:95 and some super cute red polka dot poplin for $12 – just need to find some time to sew!

    Can’t wait to see the next Cake instalment!

  16. I think quilting cotton has a time & a place for garment purposes (I love to use it for circle skirts, shirtwaist dresses, or anything that benefits from the extra body & stiffness that comes with the fabric), and I toooootally agree with you about the difference in quality. I was actually told it’s a very similar story for Gutterman thread -the stuff at Joann’s isn’t the same quality as the stuff at an actual quilting shop, hence why it costs less.

    • Yes- there is something about Gutterman thread, isn’t there? I’ve heard a similar thing… I was never a big fan anyway, I use Rasant and Mettler… They’re usually better value for money, especially the Rasant 1000m spool…

  17. I’ve been so busy lately I’m just trying to catch up with people’s blogs, so I of course totally understand life gets in the way of blogging! :)

    A big yes to the quality of quilting cotton discussion. I am a big fan of cotton in general as a fabric. It’s easy to wash, it breathes, it doesn’t feel too fancy (I’m just not a fancy gal). I do also like a good print and novelty print, and it’s difficult to find cotton that’s considered “apparel quality” that isn’t boring or meh quality. So I’ve definitely used quilting cotton. This summer I made a gorgeous vintage dress in a Japanese quilting cotton that felt absolutely divine. I LOVE that dress. Cotton to me is a great “cake” fabric, and since most of my wardrobe (vintage, hand-made or neither) is cake, I am sort of on a forever hunt for quality cotton that can also work for apparel, but it’s just so hard. I don’t want -everything- sheer or have to be lined (like with lawn or voile) or be more sturdy (like a quilting weight). I wish there was also a grade of cotton between lawn and mid-weight, more akin to some vintage cottons… someone needs to corner that market!

    (I still have to try Liberty but haven’t felt my skills were yet up to snuff for it yet. Getting there. lol)

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  19. I generally shy away from quilting cottons with the exception of really exceptional prints and Free Spirit/Westminster designer fabric (which also falls into the category of “exceptional prints”, I suppose). Actually, I suppose I don’t really shy away from it all that much. I adore fun prints and quilting cottons always have the best prints. My main rule with sewing with them is “no close-fitting garments for my lower body”- circle skirts, blouses, and most dresses with non-close fitting skirts I can usually make work in quilting cottons. Part of why I love Colette Patterns is because of how well many of their designs work in quilting cottons, therefore allowing me to make garments with all the fun prints that I love.


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